COLERIDGE AND KANTIAN IDEAS IN ENGLAND, 1796-1817 by Monika Class, Reviewed by Thomas R. Simons
 

COLERIDGE AND KANTIAN IDEAS IN ENGLAND, 1796-1817
By Monika Class
(Bloomsbury, 2012) xiv + 245pp.
Reviewed by Thomas R. Simons on 2014-09-15.

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The philosophical is the political--even in the abstract, murky penumbra of Kantian philosophy. In this book, writes Monika Class, she "endeavours to recover the radical Enlightenment dimension of first principles in Kant's and Coleridge's early work" and "aims to recapture the revolutionary impact of critical philosophy, not only of its radical break with traditional metaphysics but also its characteristic confidence that the progress of human rationality despite its deficiencies entails sociopolitical reform" (10). Class also seeks to "recover ... the genealogy of early Kantianism in England and thus lay ... open Coleridge's ultimate reversal of Kant's political stance" (1). Here we find the familiar dichotomy between the radical, dissenting early Coleridge, and the conservative, late Coleridge who held court as the Sage of Highgate. According to Class, Coleridge "enacts a complete reversal of Kant's radical Enlightenment principles into a form of Anglican conservatism," which Class equates with "what Foucault called a 'false appraisal' or 'faulty calculation'" (7). At the same time, she declares, "[t]he present study complicates and challenges [the] notion of Coleridge's and Kant's conservative reaction against the Enlightenment" (10).

Class begins by tracing the genealogy of Kant's early mediators in Bristol and London. For the English public, she writes, " ... the religious and moral implications of the first critique" are at the same time "[i]mplicitly political" (18). As centers of what she calls "dissenting radical circles," Bristol and London exemplify for Class "the interdependency of philosophical and sociopolitical factors in the English reception as well as the position of Kantianism outside the mainstream of English society" (26). Here Class builds on recent trends in British Romantic scholarship that shift the focus from individuality to "sociability" as the key driver in the promulgation of ideas (4). This shift is also said to undermine the "Romantic myth of the solitary poet" (38).

In this book, the man Class chiefly credits with importing Kantian philosophy from Germany into England is Friedrich August Nitsch, whose General and Introductory View of Professor Kant Concerning Man, the World and the Deity (1796) appeared in London after Nitsch had been teaching Kant's philosophy there for about three years and had formed a Kantian society in 1794. In expounding Kant, however, Nitsch had to contend with the commonly held suspicion that Kant specifically, and critical philosophy in general, were associates and promulgators of Jacobinism and atheism. To combat the fear of skepticism that dogged the English reception of Kant and critical philosophy, and to make Kant palatable to religious tastes, Nitsch "systematically supported the notion that Kant had rescued traditional metaphysics from perpetual doubt" (35). Accordingly, Class challenges critics such as René Wellek, who have dismissed Nitsch's importance. According to Class, Nitsch is "an important figure for the effective history of critical philosophy as well as British Romanticism." Furthermore, Class contends, "the established view of Nitsch and his exposition requires a complete revision" (33).

To buttress her claim, Class argues that Nitsch strongly influenced Coleridge. Besides his "philosophical investment in the notion of free will," she affirms, "Coleridge's doubts concerning associationism made him particularly responsive to the way Nitsch marketed critical philosophy" (49). Just as Nitsch rejected necessitarianism, Class observes, Coleridge repudiated the doctrines of David Hartley in the Biographia Literaria, although this did not happen until "[a]lmost twenty years later" (42). Between 1798 and 1817, Class writes, Coleridge moved away from "the determinist views professed by Priestley, Hartley, Locke and Newton" (61) towards an affirmation of the central importance of free will. Class reads this move politically. "Coleridge," she declares, "doubted necessitarianism on political grounds; for him, it did not seem progressive enough" (64). According to Class, Coleridge's political ideas collaborate with his religious feelings and philosophical theories. "Coleridge's political activism was ... inseparable from his religious convictions" (53).

Besides contending that Nitsch's version of Kant played a key role in shaping Coleridge's thought, Class tries to show that "Kantian thought had been part of Coleridge's life for a longer time than has previously been thought, namely before the winter of 1800 and 1801," and also that his "encounter with the new philosophy was bound up with the pursuit of freedom" (67-68). The first evidence of Kant's influence on Coleridge, Class notes, occurs in a "notebook ... entry dated to late 1795 and early 1796" (72), when Coleridge could not yet read Kant in German. Since the entry deals with Kant's categorical imperative, and since the translation found in On Perpetual Peace--with its Appendix on the categorical imperative-- was not published until late in 1796, Class infers that Coleridge must have learned about the categorical imperative from Nitsch. Besides his contacts with men such as Beddoes, Godwin, and Thelwall, "who had reviewed, read or attended the lectures of Nitsch" (85), Class also suggests that Coleridge may have read reviews of Nitsch in contemporary periodicals. In any case, Class finds similarities between two of Coleridge's notebook entries and the printed version of Nitsch's lectures. Both Nitsch and Coleridge, she finds, reject Kantian disinterestedness and stress the necessary relationship between the "highest good," "virtue," and "happiness." Yet while Nitsch equates happiness with sensual pleasure, the latter is not clearly part of Coleridge's "universal happiness." Likewise questionable is Class's claim that another entry from Coleridge's Notebooks (I, §1705) applies "Nitsch's lesson ... that we have a physical and spiritual motivation to abide by the moral law: 'our Impulse'" (87). But Class does not explain how Nitsch's "der Wille" and "Logos" becomes Coleridge's "God" and "Christ." The introduction of a clearly religious element strongly implies that Coleridge considers "our Impulse" spiritual.

Class is more persuasive in arguing that Coleridge's "France: an Ode" may have been partly inspired by Kant's Perpetual Peace. Challenging not only "the narrative of disenchantment surrounding Coleridge's reception of Kant" but also the notion that Coleridge was exclusively preoccupied "with a world beyond space and time" (93), Class reads Coleridge's ode not as signaling his "departure from radical politics," as does J.C.C. Mays (94), but rather as showing that his "lasting sympathy depends on the classification of Revolutionary France under the state of nature" (104). According to Class, the poem thus reflects the influence of Perpetual Peace, which Coleridge learned about from Beddoes' review of the first English translations of Kant's work in the Monthly Review. Both Kant and Coleridge, Class contends, posit "Nature as the corrective against human selfishness," insofar as it "regulate[s] human vice" (110). Yet the multiple versions of "France: An Ode" also chart Coleridge's eventual repudiation of Republican politics. Class astutely chronicles and analyzes the sequence of published versions of the poem: starting as a reluctant (though still ardent) supporter of Republican France, Coleridge then defensively maneuvers to shield himself from domestic criticism, and finally enacts a Burkean pirouette in the "Argument," which "marks Coleridge's slow turn away from his radical ideals and the beginning of a transition to a nuanced pro-war position" (120).

Having thus used Kant to help justify his rejection of revolutionary politics in "France: an ode," Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria, Class writes, turns Kant into a "proponent of conservatism"(148). Against the background of sometimes "drastic changes in public attitude towards Kantianism before, during, and after Coleridge's trip to Germany" (121), he remade himself as a conservative, "appropriat[ing] Kant's principle for his conservative outlook despite the radical and transformative power of critical philosophy" (145). Coleridge, Class argues, uses Kant to rewrite his own past and defend himself "against the charges of Jacobinism" (149), and also to justify his "self-construction as a philosopher of genius" (15). But here again Coleridge misreads Kant. While Kant restricts the designation of "genius" to the arts, Coleridge affirms that "genius" can be specifically "philosophic" (153). At the same time, Class observes, "the role of philosophic genius" further helps Coleridge to distinguish himself from Wordsworth, "who had just published the distinction between fancy and imagination in his Preface to the 1815 edition of his poems," and who was thus a candidate for Coleridge's "most serious rival" (154).

Class concludes by boldly arguing that Coleridge's distinction between Reason and Understanding--mainly in The Friend--reveals his "profound link" to Nitsch's interpretation of Kant (169). Nitsch, she contends, anticipated Coleridge's assignment of an "inferior role" to "the Understanding," a definition that scholars "since Wellek" have found unsupported by Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (181). According to Class, Coleridge's concept of the Understanding is "largely inspired by a late-eighteenth-century interpretation that can be traced via Nitsch and Reinhold to the section on the postulates of empirical thinking" in the first Critique (181). But Class's argument is tenuous here. She not only entertains "the possibility that Coleridge was acquainted with Nitsch's treatise and by extension Reinhold's amplifications of the power of Reason before Coleridge had studied the first critique by himself" (182); she also assumes that Coleridge could not develop his own version of the distinction between Reason and Understanding, relying on commentators instead. Even if knowledge advances to a considerable degree via social relations, there still must be room for individual innovation--and even the occasional original thought. Otherwise, there would never be actual progress--only a self-circling stagnation.

Class's own language reflects the looseness of the would-be "profound link" between Coleridge and Nitsch. One claim made by Coleridge, for example, is said to be "close to Nitsch's interpretation" (182); another passage of Nitsch's "appears to have inspired" Coleridge "at least in part" (183). When comparing the ways in which two commentators construe one author, we must expect a certain amount of overlap and similarity. Class finds the "idealist tendency" of Nitsch's treatise more compatible with "Coleridge['s] metaphysical quest than the original first critique" (183); but since Coleridge's annotations (Marginalia 3: 241) are to the fifth edition of this critique (1799), he was already working with Kant's emended version when he "extolled the distinction between the reason and understanding for the first time in the letter to Clarkson (October 1806)" (182).

Class's argument also rests on the questionable supposition that in the first critique Kant himself doesn't in any way deprecate the role of the Understanding [Verstand]. But while Understanding grapples with the realm of phenomena accessible through sensory perception, Reason [Vernuft] apprehends the noumenal, the domain of the supersensible. For Kant, this is "a field quite different from that of the senses . . . a world which is thought as it were in spirit." Although comprised of "possible things," noumena are "not objects of our senses, but are thought as objects merely through the understanding" (Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Norman Kemp Smith [New York: St. Martin's, 1965] 266-267). Understanding is the only humanly accessible medium for the communication of the ideas present in--and derived from -- Reason. But here the Understanding still performs a clearly subordinate role.

While Coleridge's subordination of Understanding is more Kantian than Class suggests, she concludes by plausibly contending that he sundered the "moral-theological . . . function of reason" from its "active political function" (188), and thus "effectively reversed the sociopolitical force behind critical philosophy" (189). In solidifying the "conservative image of Kant in England," this reversal "remains one of Coleridge's lasting legacies" (190).

This extensive study of Coleridge's response to Kant involves numerous other literary and philosophical figures and connections that I do not have the space to address. While I have questioned some of Class's arguments and assertions, this book engages the reader and provides ample food for thought. Besides demonstrating that Coleridge's version of Kant owes more to Nitsch than previously recognized, she also effectively details the interconnections that both Kant and Coleridge drew between politics, philosophy, and religion. Class also does an exceptional job of presenting the social context of English culture at the close of the eighteenth century, when Kant was initially received and his critical philosophy was dispersed. Instead of retelling the oft-told tale of Coleridge's march to conservatism as a straightforward, linear path marked by clear signposts, Class maps the twists and turns of the journey, the reversals and regressions as well as the public relations dilemmas. So while this book may prove challenging for those unversed in Kant, it is hardly meant for Kantians alone. Besides engaging Coleridgeans and Romanticists, it should also appeal to anyone interested in the intellectual, political, and social history of the period.

Thomas R. Simons is an independent scholar whose dissertation is entitled Being and the Imaginary: An Introduction to Aesthetic Phenomenology and English Literature from the Eighteenth Century to Romanticism (Boston College, 2009). His publications include “Coleridge Beyond Kant and Hegel: Transcendent Aesthetics and the Dialectic Pentad,” Studies in Romanticism 45 (2006): 465-481.


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